I cannot say I was drawn to her that first time we met. It has been several years now since the image of Saint Mary, skeletal and wild with repentance, was placed in the center of the sanctuary, years since I introduced myself by venerating her hands while inwardly recoiling from their lack of matronly comfort or delicate beauty. Her story, briefly retold in a homily mid-service, did not sit well with my 21st century faith tempered by rational limits and moderation, where extremes are viewed as threatening and morose. “Is this what makes you happy?” I bitterly asked of Christ, “drifting through a desert for 47 years to pay for sins long past?” And I left that afternoon, unmoved and downhearted about my prospects for acceptance in God’s good graces.
St. Mary of Egypt was once a lustful figure, her femininity marred and distorted by an obsession with fleshly pleasure. She was a cracked and fragile vessel who had emptied her convictions to make room for the base desire, infiltrating, filling, and consuming her soul. Paying with her body, she boarded a ship, following out of curiosity the crowd journeying to Jerusalem for the Exaltation of the Precious and Lifegiving Cross. When unseen forces barred her entrance into the temple she stepped to the side, exhausted and disappointed. Suddenly, she was acutely aware of the depths of her impurity and she wept beneath the icon of the Theotokos, beating at her breast with violent regret.
I tried in vain to distance myself from the snow-white hair and sun baked skin, pulled taut over fleshless bone. I was not a prostitute or a reckless tramp, exchanging morality for selfish indulgence. Surely, I hadn’t taken delight in that which is contrary to righteousness. I’m pretty certain it wasn’t my habit to appease an insatiable appetite for instant gratification by whatever means were currently at my disposal. I was not effectively selling myself this faulty and dishonest justification, because there is no distancing oneself in the body of Christ, where all are united and saved arm in arm. Where the transgressions of one trickle down to another, and the penitent prayers of those overwhelmed by the depths of their own impurity, wipe clean the errant stains of their neighbor. “At all times you are either hurting the Church or advancing Her efforts,” my priest recently reminded his parishioners, “there is no idle lingering, no neutral ground.”
What I missed by focusing on the peripherals, by narrowing in on the brushwork of a masterpiece and pouting over my own lack of skill, was the overarching beauty of a life transformed by forgiveness, and the implications of that for all of us who wrestle with sin. What I couldn’t see from behind my self-protecting viewpoint was a loving response – a release instead of punishment. St. Mary of Egypt was finally unchained from the prison of her addictions. She found nourishment in the wilderness even as her body withered. St. Mary became a vessel of atonement, filled now with the warmth of God. What I had taken was a picture out of context, twisting its meaning to reflect my own agenda, the agenda where I coast my way to heaven.
The moment has made its way round again, when I kiss emaciated fingers belonging to hands reaching always for holiness and submission. One last reminder on the cusp of Lent’s finale that repentance is not a one shot deal, but a lifelong dedication to following God’s will, wherever it may lead us. One last confirmation, that Christianity is neither rational nor moderate. St. Mary of Egypt who wandered the desert, enlightening generations behind her, appears to us when we need her most with a message of hope for the oppressed. Liberation is but a heartbeat away in the tears of remorse for falling short of our potential, of turning our backs on the cross. St. Mary, please teach us to waste not a moment before running toward Christ for relief and redemption. Encourage us with your example to continually advance God’s Kingdom by responding wholeheartedly to His love.
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